Several high school football teams in North Texas returned to the practice field last week, with the remaining schools set to begin this week. With Texas coming out of its third-hottest month of July to date, proactively keeping players safe from heatstroke is essential.
Heatstroke is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Twenty-one high school football players have died of heat-related illness since 2010 nationwide, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. The center does not provide state-by-state death tolls.
Of all weather-related events, heat is the deadliest, according to the National Weather Service.
“It’s just being careful,” said Lewisville head football coach Michael Odle.”You want to be in shape, you got to get acclimated a little bit as you start going forward, but you definitely have to be careful, and this is not the old days; it’s different, and you have to make sure that when parents drop these kids off, that they feel safe doing so and that we provide a safe and healthy environment for athletes.”
The UIL (University Interscholastic League) provides all schools in Texas with guidelines they must follow regarding heat and athletic participation. A major tenet of the UIL guidelines is that players are allowed to acclimate to heat gradually.
“It’s four days of just helmets, and then they add shoulder pads,” said Richardson High School head athletic trainer Maria Rosanelli. “Then they’re allowed to do the full pads, and so every kid has to follow that. So if we have kids that show up after that acclimatization period, they start on day one. So that’s super important. All of our coaches follow that.”
The UIL guidelines do not mandate that schools have an emergency response plan in place, which could include having a cold water immersion tub on-site to submerge an athlete should they experience a heatstroke.
They also do not mandate that Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) be used to monitor heat. WBGT monitoring is a more comprehensive heat measurement than heat index because it takes into account factors such as evaporative cooling, solar radiation, and ambient temperature to give the most accurate read for the heat stress an active football player in equipment feels.
Individual school districts can enact policies to go beyond the UIL guidelines. Richardson and Lewisville have done just that, with both having emergency response plans in effect and on-site ice tubs.
“I know a lot of athletic trainers, we go above and beyond and do more,” said Rosanelli. “You know, it’s not mandated that you have to have like cold tubs ready. But I know here at the school, we got what’s called a polar pod. And so it’s kind of like a taco method. If we have an athlete that we suspect has heat exhaustion or heatstroke, we could put them in there and douse them with ice and water.”
Rosanelli says Richardson High School does use WBGT to monitor the heat.
At Lewisville, the policies regarding athletic participation in the heat go beyond the UIL’s guidelines, including mandating that daily temperature reports be filed in the athletic trainers’ office when the temperature is over 90 degrees.
Over his six years at Lewisville, Coach Odle said he has never had a player suffer heatstroke or another severe heat illness.
“It’s a blessing to work for a district like Lewisville ISD, that’s got great upper admin that has a policy that we can abide by, go by, that protects kids and coaches,” said Odle. “Let’s face it, it protects everyone from the elements.”
Both Odle and Rosanelli said that hydration is the most critical tool to prevent players from suffering heat illnesses. Both schools have water readily available for players whenever they need it and have regular water breaks.
“Number one thing that athletes do themselves and we also provide is water for hydration,” said Rosanelli. “If you’re going to come in any kind of bulk camp, if you will, two a days, you have to be prepared and hydrate your body.”